Another Cougar

Uh-oh, here we go again. Buckle your chinstraps. Fasten your seat belts. Looks like another flurry of cougar sightings — four legs, distinctive long tail — the latest one close to home.

But, first, a little background. This most recent surge began quite inauspiciously more than a month ago, when an envelope on my Recorder desk postmarked White River Junction, Vt., brought an anonymous note accompanied by a Lancaster, N.H., newspaper clipping about a cougar sighting. I publicized this sighting by a trained naturalist in a rare second column that ran “inside” on July 5, and figured I’d leave it at that. But the story didn’t end there. No sir. In fact, that’s where it all started. Go figure.

Last week, more cougars, beginning with a phone call at work from a neighbor whose brother had on the late-afternoon of July 30 seen one cross the road in front of his vehicle on Route 112 in Ashfield. He promised to provide a detailed email account and did so the next day, when his message fell into my spam filter and languished overnight. By the time I read his story the next morning, I had already explored an email link to a Michigan television news segment about a 17th confirmed cougar sighting in that state, this one captured on a hunter’s trail camera. I worked both sightings into last week’s column without devoting a lot of space, and now, you guessed it, two more this week — one from long ago, reported by reader Ned James, who saw it near his Ashfield home, the other Sunday by a woman living on Adams Road in Greenfield. The Greenfield witness is not a Recorder subscriber, hadn’t the faintest idea that I had ever written anything about local cougar sightings, was unaware of the road-killed big cat last year on a southern Connecticut highway, and hesitated even to share with her neighbors what she had seen for fear that they’d think she was nuts.

“To be honest, I was starting to question myself, thinking maybe my mind was playing games with me and I ought to visit a shrink,” said 67-year-old registered nurse Lorraine (Hagerty) Blanchard. “When I finally got the nerve to tell my neighbors, I said, ‘It couldn’t have been a bobcat. They’re not that big and they don’t have long tails.’”

The neighbor’s wife suggested she call The Recorder, said there was a reporter there who’d written of many cougar sightings. So Blanchard called the newsroom Tuesday morning, the administrative assistant took the information and her phone number, emailed them to me and I dialed the woman’s number before noon. Ms. Blanchard screened the call on her answering machine and picked up when I identified myself in a message. We proceeded to chat for about an hour. She said absolutely nothing to draw suspicion or dissuade me from going public with her sighting. So, here it is.

It was Sunday afternoon, about 4:30, and Ms. Blanchard had just returned home. Hot and muggy, she put on her bathing suit and stepped out onto the deck overlooking the pool and her backyard, bordered by woods 100 to 200 feet away. There, along the wood line, sat the cat, sitting straight up like a dog. She got a good side profile of the beast from the rear, said it towered over a three-foot-high birdhouse standing on a post within five feet. The animal appeared to be all brown, its long tail wrapped around to the front. Soon her pet cat, Jingles, came running nervously toward her. Then an unfamiliar gray cat scooted off, also visibly nervous. Blanchard doesn’t think the wildcat knew it was under observation but it soon stood up and slowly ambled into the woods, “not running, just walking like a cat. It was huge, the shoulders powerful, a beautiful animal, sleek, graceful, gorgeous. I want to go to the library, find a book and learn more about these animals. I didn’t know we had anything like that around here. I thought they were out west. I’d only seem them on National Geographic TV. What a beautiful animal.”

Blanchard was able to gauge the animal’s size because it was sitting between the birdhouse and her backyard shed. “I’d guess it was four or five feet tall, sitting up, from its butt to the top of its ears,” she said. “When it got into the woods, it turned its head back and yawned. Then I saw it moving through the trees and it disappeared. That’s when I went to my neighbors’ house. I described what I had seen and they said it sounded like a cougar. I looked it up in the dictionary and knew that’s what I had seen.”

When informed that state and federal wildlife experts have in the past accused those who’ve reported such sightings of mistaking large domestic cats for cougars because of deceiving light conditions, she laughed and without hesitation said, “Why would they say such a thingt? My cat weighs 18 pounds; it would look like an ant compared to what I saw.”

Blanchard’s description of the sitting cougar was strikingly similar to a tale told me in the gym by Ernie Snow of Bernardston Road in Greenfield. As I recall, Snow spotted his big cat sitting under his backyard apple tree. He said he watched it out the window for some time before it rose to all fours and walked off, much the way Blanchard described it, all power and grace, a beautiful sight to behold. When I told Snow I had reported a cougar sighting at neighboring Emerson Farm, he knew, said he had read it in the paper and almost called, but didn’t; which underscores the possibility of many similar local sightings that go unreported.

How can anyone question sightings like Blanchard’s or Snow’s? I believe the day is approaching when there will be no denials, just warnings to give the beasts space and let them pass. But first wildlife officials must stop dismissing cougar sightings as LSD flashbacks and misidentified kitty cats, and admit they’re on the comeback trail to the reforested Northeast.

Which reminds me: Do you suppose all the wildfires ravaging the Wild West could be speeding cougars’ eastward migration? They have to flee somewhere. Why not the wild Great Lakes country and on to the dense, craggy Adirondack, Green and White mountain ranges? They’ve been there before, appear to be coming back.

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